The Low Down on Plastic Numbers
By Maura Yates
Have you ever wondered what the different numbers mean on plastic items? The YourGuidetoGreen.com Team has, and this is what our researchers learned:
A wide variety of plastic products are available today and each type melts at a different temperature and displays different properties. The plastics industry developed identification codes to label these different types of plastic in order to efficiently sort them for recycling. Dividing plastic products into seven distinct types and uses, the identification system assigns a number 1 through 7 that generally is found on the bottom of containers next to the familiar triangular recycling symbol.
There is no government regulation on the use of the recycling symbol, nor on the similar triangles with resin code numbers inside that are found on many plastic products. Many labeled products and packages are recyclable but many are not. Conversely, many unlabeled products and packages are recyclable. Manufacturers, industry associations and lobbyists have, thus far, resisted any “truth in labeling” restrictions on the use of the recycling symbol, or on words relating to recyclability. Placement of a recycle symbol or similar label on a product is up to individual companies and is not a guarantee that the item can be recycled.
The following are brief descriptions of what the numbers indicate:
#1: PET: (polyethylene terephthalate): RECYCLABLE
Polyethylene terephthalate is one of the most important types of plastic to recycle because it has such a high recycled value. Soda bottles, beer bottles, food bottles, plastic egg cartons and microwave trays are all examples of #1 PET plastics. After their first lives, these products can be recycled into a long fiber and made into carpet, fiberfill for jackets (fleece jackets), T-Shirt material and shopping bags. Did you know recycling one soda bottle could save enough energy to power your TV for one and a half hours?
#2: HDPE: (high-density polyethylene): RECYCLABLE
Alternative decking materials, such as Trex, are one the most consumptive uses for recycled HDPE. Shampoo bottles and laundry detergent are examples of colored #2 HDPE that are recycled to create this plastic lumber. Other #2 containers that are clear, like plastic milk and water jugs, are recycled into new containers. However, some products that contain a HDPE plastic, such as Tyvek mailing envelopes or HAZMAT suits, cannot be recycled.
#3: V: (vinyl or polyvinyl chloride): SOMETIMES RECYCLABLE
Polyvinyl chloride is touted as the “healthy plastic” because it has a high-temperature leaching point and leaches toxins at a slower rate. However, this plastic often constitutes one-time-use-goods including clear food packaging, outdoor furniture and even plumbing pipe which is not valued for its recyclability.
#4: LDPE: (Low-density polyethylene): RECYCLABLE
Many recycling facilities do not accept #4 plastics due to the cost of transportation: if there is no recycling facility close by, then the amount of energy it takes to transport this plastic is more than it takes to produce the virgin plastic material. Bags for bread, frozen food and grocery sacks are all examples of LDPE plastic. When they are recycled they become plastic bags or plastic lumber such as Trex.
#5: PP: (polypropylene): NOT RECYCLABLE
Polypropylene is the saving grace of folks in cold climates, providing them with warm clothing under layers but this same plastic is also used to make yogurt, margarine and other food containers. Similar to #3 Vinyl, there are not enough products that can be made by recycling polypropylene to financially justify recycling it. However, it’s worth checking in your area because sometimes, big businesses that have a use for PP will buy it.
#6: PS: (polystyrene): SOMETIMES RECYCLABLE
If there is one plastic you should consider completely eliminating from your life, it is polystyrene! In the solid state, polystyrene is used to make compact disc jackets and one-time use items such as disposable cutlery and to-go containers. In the expanded state, Styrofoam packaging peanuts, coffee cups and meat trays are all examples of polystyrene. It is not economically efficient to recycle polystyrene because, similar to #4 plastics, the cost of transportation is more than the production of virgin material. The moral of this plastic is: don’t use it – it ends up in the landfills and waterways. Also, consider taking your PS packaging peanuts to a local packing store for them to reuse.
#7: Others: NOT RECYCLABLE or Corn-Resin
There are a slew of other products that are made from a combination of plastic resins, thus #7 is the number those products have been assigned! A classic example of a #7 is ketchup bottles and lids. In order to make the best buying decisions for us, and our families, it is important to know that these products cannot be recycled.
In addition to keeping unnecessary items out of the landfill and extending the usefulness of plastic items, consider that producing new plastic from recycled material uses only two-thirds of the energy required to manufacture it from raw materials.